Hajar: of the desert by amina wadud

Amina Wadud 2 I am Muslim, by choice, practice and vocation

This week the Islamic pilgrimage or Hajj was completed.  For those not gathering on the dusty plains of the desert in Arabia, we have the celebration of the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating the exchange of a lamb for the blood of the son of Abraham.  This story is coated with patriarchy, and so it is with some fascination that Hajar (biblical Hagar) configures so significantly in the Islamic telling of it.

According to the same patriarchal twist, it is Abraham’s first son that is pivotal to the story’s continuation and the salvation of a people, yet to be born.  That his first son, Ishmael, was born of a slave woman—some say of African origins—is not without extreme symbolism for African-American women, mostly Christian.  That she is the mother of the tribes of Arabs is also not without some extreme genealogy along with that symbolism. But that she a single female head of household, whose sojourn in the desert still, has a central ritual re-enactment in the Hajj, that I turn to here.

The story goes, Abraham’s wife Sarah had reached her seniority without producing an heir.  This caused our old patriarch some disconcert and she took advantage of an age-old custom to support his desire (?) by providing a concubine, a slave woman, specifically for the purpose of sex and hopefully for the conclusion of that intercourse to reproduce a child.  That such was indeed the case, and a male child to boot, is again not my focus here.  Already, we see that Hajar is without status.  Whatever child she produces becomes the acknowledged son of Abraham’s patriarchal household.  She and Sarah are both equally rendered invisible utilities to the completion of his need for progeny.

Jewish and Christian continuation of the story plays little into the Islamic continuation and our ritual re-enactment.  For by the miracle of the Creator, Sarah too bears a child (and male to boot, Isaac!).  The erasure of Hajar becomes more than symbolic.  She is banished to the desert.  Why they didn’t just kill her and the child is beyond me because what she was consigned to was only short of death by a hair’s breath.  Furthermore, it is Abrahham, at once pictured as a loving father, and husband to two women, who must deliver her up to her fate.  Now the test arises in earnest.  Not only did she wish for her survival under impossible circumstances, but also she wished to save her innocent child.  As the story goes, dehydration seemed to be the most eminent threat and she began frantically to search for water.

Seven (7) times she went back and forth between two foothills (Safa, where the child lay) and Marwa almost a half kilometer apart. At some point in this frantic search, she even ran.  I can imagine the angst of her search and the despair of success, although she never ceased her search.  Again the divine miracle intercedes and water springs forth, just at the heel of the child.  She and he are saved, for the moment… and apparently, although details are scarce in Islamic literature and lore…she is joined with a tribe somewhere out there in the desert.

Fast forward a few thousand years and now Muslims (young and old, female and male, in wheelchairs and able bodied) replicate this frantic journey between two foothills during the Hajj in the ritual act called Sa’iy.  Little of the reality of Hajar’s struggle to survive is sufficiently emphasized today.  For example, at the places where she is said to have ran, pilgrims are encouraged to likewise run.  But wait, NOT all pilgrims—just the male, able bodied ones.  People (male and female) in wheel chairs are zoomed along the air-conditioned pavilion and no distinction is made between any one part of the long corridor. The young (males) pushing the chairs simply zip along, to collect a few hundred riyal and take up the next customer.  It’s all business for them.  Older men and women (like me) are simply grateful to be able to complete the 3.5 kilometer total of the 7 circuits using our own two feet.  As much as a part of me wanted to defy the Saudi restriction of “running” to only the men, I actually had not the state of fitness to pull off anything more than walking.

It feels cheap to walk in clean, tiled conditions under pumping central air-condition.   Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe in ritual suffering (nor in life suffering).  But here’s the thing.  Something is amiss in our entire Muslim culture, and has been so for more than a few centuries now, when the central theme of this story is white-washed.  Here is the ultimate expression of the inter-sectionality of race, class and gender made barren by our lack of commemoration.

In Muslim cultures, the patriarchal family rules supreme, and yet Hajar was (literally) thrown out in the desert to fend for herself and her child without even a second’s thought to the impossibility of her location as confirmation of patriarchy.  How does such a woman who enters the story to confirm patriarchy even survive when the same patriarchy abandons her?  Now she re-configures as the most significant player in the survival of a people and their entire legacy.  How then do we reconcile with Abraham, the dead beat dad, Sarah the selfish bitch, and even God, the benevolent?!

The pristine ultra-modern conditions of the Hajj pavilion, the grand mosque, built around the Kaabah (and even as I type, subject to further, more elaborate renovations and expansions) should NOT detract from the realization of the plight of Hajar and the details of her survival.  For while we, on the one hand, re-enact her race for water, and drink from the wells of Zam-Zam, still flowing today, I can only think on the other hand, of one thing: a single black female, head of household not only makes this ritual necessary but also makes it possible by her tenacity of survival in spite of gross race, class and gender inequality.  Thank you Hajar, I needed that reminder and I am heartened by it.

 amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe. 

Categories: General, Islam, Patriarchy, Pilgrimage, Ritual

Tags: , , , , ,

30 replies

  1. “…a single black female, head of household not only makes this ritual necessary but also makes it possible by her tenacity of survival in spite of gross race, class and gender inequality.”

    A single black woman has literally moved millions, over many centuries. When I pause to think of all the other great Black women in history (which I won’t name here because I know very well I will omit some important ones), one can only wonder if the iconic image of the black woman standing tall is perchance genetic. Very interesting perspective. Thank you, Amina.


  2. Amina, this was very powerful, especially since the Eid sermon I attended spoke only of Abraham, Ismail, and God: not one word about Hajar (or Sarah). You have provided an antidote.


  3. Sober Second Look has a terrific response to your piece. You really moved her (me too), the shock of the words about Ibrahim and Sarah forced a perspective shift that unravelled some powerful reflections:

    “As readers and audiences of these stories, we were all expected to identify with the (believing) free elite male characters—Abraham, the Prophet, the male Sahaba, the male awliya. We were led to believe that the wives of the Prophet were “jealous” and “petty” and giving in to their “typical feminine weaknesses,” and that by extension, any wives who competed for resources and attention for themselves or their kids were also “jealous” and “petty” and being stereotypically “weak.” We had been led to romanticize oppression and suffering, focusing on Hajar’s question to Abraham—”Is it God’s will that you leave me here?”—and her quiet acceptance of his “yes” as a sign of her faith… and in our own lives, refusal to question the larger patriarchal paradigm that makes such actions seem acceptable as our test of faith.”



  4. El-Farouk Khaki gave the Eid sermon at Toronto Unity Mosque on Hajar. He said the most amazing thing that resonates with your powerful words here: No Hajar, no Ismaʿil. No Ismaʿil, no Zam Zam. No Zam Zam, no Mecca. No Mecca, no Quryash. No Quraysh, no Muhammad. No Muhammad, no Islam.


  5. It is wonderful to know that Hajar inspires/empowers African-American women. Would have liked to know more of that story…….

    Dr Wadud had mentioned in one of her talks about the ying/yang aspect in Islam and this post made me reflect on this aspect of faith/trust (Iman) expressed by Hajar and Abraham. In the tradition, Hajar looks for water for her son Ishmael—a son whose life is on the line without water. She uses both Iman and effort to protect—-“To protect” is a function often associated with men. In the Quran, Abraham confers with his son Ishmael about the sacrifice and Ishmael consents–this function of “consensus-building”/co-operation is often associated with women. In both cases Ishmael’s life is on the line and in both cases choices are made in favor of Iman…..but in one case it is to protect life and in the other to lay it down for a cause…….


  6. I’m wondering if a trace of this story is to be found in the spiritual “Lord Hold My Hand”.
    Given the tradition of Hajar possibly being of African origin & her importance to African-American Christian women, I think it’s possible.


  7. How then do we reconcile with Abraham, the dead beat dad, Sarah the selfish bitch, and even God, the benevolent?!

    Do Believers have the right to use this language (bitch and dead beat dad) about Abraham “khalilallah” and his wife, Sarah “member of the only ummah” on earth along with her husband and Lot ?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so glad to know about the tradition that Hajar was African. That changes the story for me a great deal, since it resonates with the lives of so many African-American women in the U.S. today and with stories of the slave days (I think of Linda Brent’s _Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl_ and other slave narratives). The story of Hajar itself is certainly NOT a feminist story (deadbeat dad, selfish bitch other wife), but the story of her survival can be a model of a strong woman.


  9. Its brilliantly written , thought provoking and has a point , but Amna Wadud , You do Hurt alot of people when they read words like Bitch , even though i know its sarcasm but i guess given your status , it is below you to write such way


  10. I need to believe that the Hajar story has a happy ending, that God felt Hajar was better off, by herself with her son in the desert, befriended by a nameless group of Bedouins. She would be happier there than under the unrelenting jealousy of an older wife.

    The only evidence I have for my “happy” ending is that Isaac’s son, Esau, had married two Caananite women whom Isaac disapproved of. Esau, to please his parents, married Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath (also called Basemath- Genesis 28:9, and 36:3). Hajar’s granddaughter was welcomed by Isaac and Rebekah.


    • There is not only a happy ending but also a powerful encounter between Hajar and God when she is left in the desert.

      Her assertion of faith exemplifies, that when it comes down to the old system (man takes woman, woman has baby and then serves them two for the rest of her life..) instead Woman TAKES God over all other systems.

      She is also the keeper of the wells of the waters of Zam-Zam so the “tribe” actually comes to her, in Muslim telling of the story. Eventually, this Isma’il blood lines lead to our Prophet Muhammad.. so we are VERY happy with that ending!


  11. What a great piece, and I had never ever thought of the whole story in the intersectional lens that Dr. Wadud frames this story in. Things that continue to make me go hmmmmm


  12. what can I say: I LOVE the provocation of language!

    All words used here-in can be found in an English dictionary. Thus are linguistically correct. Others can decide on their own NOT to use the words I CHOSE.

    Oddly enough, everyone who quotes this essay, (here and elsewhere) REPEAT those very words.

    So clearly they must be a great choice to get the message across.


  13. Personally, I don’t believe the story of Abraham abandoning his kid and his kid’s mother. And I don’t understand why it’s taken for granted that the story is true. If Abraham did this, then he is indeed a scumbag so why would God single him out as a messenger and good example for humanity?


    • SubhannaAllah, he was call at one time the friend of Allah. The prophets were men chosen by Allah. The best of human kind. Allah gave him orders and he obeyed. Even Hajjar ask him( oh Ibrahim did Allah comant you to live me here?) he nodded with his head in the affirmative. Then she said ( them Allah will not forsake us). She was patience.

      Liked by 1 person

    • In my reading of the stories Prophet Ibraham did only what men with 2 wives do–travel back and forth from one to the other. This is illustrated by the later story when Allah instructed Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, and Ishmael was older at that time, and Ibrahim was right there, involved in his life. So he was not a deadbeat, and personally I wouldn’t use that term for our Prophet. But the rest of the piece holds so true. Hagar received divine intervention, and is way under-valued. This can’t change until pieces like this get more attention, Unfortunately, the terms used may distract some readers (such as ZS) away from the so important message.


  14. …thought about this one for more than a minute…after all is said and done, life is a test and we can presume that she passed…she will receive Jannah because of it…inshaa Allah


  15. I think this is a great article; however, I’m unsure of exactly what you’re implying by saying, “and even God, the benevolent?!” From my understanding of the Qur’an (and the Bible for that matter) God helps Hagar/Hajar and prevents her and her son from dying. What function does questioning God’s benevolence serve then? Thanks.


  16. It’s rhetorical to cause us the THINK about such things as abandonment or blood sacrifice in relation to God. There are no primary sources, Qur’an or Hadith that say for certain what was the fate of Hajar and her son. You can check that for yourself. Some times we believe that there is a solution but how did we come to those stories if they are not from our sources?


  17. The whole blood sacrifice thing is a male-created idea anyway. Human beings in the dawn of our being noticed that when women gave birth (new life), they bled so blood = life. When males decided to take over the goddess and turned her into a male god (Patriarchy), they had no blood-life connection so they started blood-letting ceremonies world-wide. Eventually the idea that “the god/s” needed blood to ensure human life meant that sacrifices had to be made; blood had to be shed to mimic what women always could do.

    The truth is, if there is a creator god, it probably never did want blood to be shed to appease it or to help humans have eternal life. That was a MAN-made idea, stolen from women to rob them of their natural power of being the life-givers.

    Just some info from my college anthropology classes.



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